February 2013

Curiosity, the Key for Great Thinking

by Sarah Thrift on February 12, 2013


We only need to spend time with a toddler to see how natural curiosity is. Toddlers are continually looking, playing, asking why. A cardboard box or a ceiling fan can provide hours of fascination.

As we move into our teenage and adult years, this curiosity often wanes. Our orientation moves towards success. We focus on school grades or progressing in our career. We adopt a laser-like focus and exclude anything which does not quickly and at a surface level serve our goal.

This focus may take us to our immediate goal, but it also limits curiosity. Which also means that we miss the richness which could propel us to even greater possibilities, fulfillment and success.

Curious people love to learn new things about a whole range of topics. It makes us self-starters, the kids who take apart toys to see how they work. The thirst for knowledge is unquenchable. Learning is continuous, regardless of age or expertise.

When Bill Clinton lost a race for Governor of Arkansas in 1980, he read over 300 books as part of a revamp for a second run. Compare that to the general population: 58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school and 42% of college graduates never read another book.

Curious minds ask questions and don’t just accept things at face value. To be satisfied, we need to know more. We want to see things as they really are, peeling back layers to see beyond what something purports to be on the surface. We can see why Rudyard Kipling said: “I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew; their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”

When we are curious, it is natural to be playful, full of childlike fascination and wonder. Being truly curious can also engender humility: we are unafraid to ask questions or to reveal something we don’t know. Nor is change an enemy. Trying new things and finding alternative solutions is part of the excitement and learning of life. Einstein often credited his own success not to “special talent” but to being “passionately curious” “When searching for a needle in a haystack, most people quit when they find the needle. I look for what other needles there might be in the haystack”.

Being curious makes life more interesting. It helps us to see new perspectives and it sparks new ideas. It makes our minds active, alert and engaged. It becomes a driving force taking us to greater success. And by knowing and understanding more, we have a greater opportunity to influence our lives. Eleanor Roosevelt said that if she could ask a fairy godmother to endow a child with “the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity”.

Our happiness is also strongly influenced by our level of curiosity. According to a Gallup survey of more than 130,000 people from more than 130 nations, the two factors that had the most influence on how much enjoyment a person experienced in a given day were “being able to count on someone for help” and “learned something yesterday.” Simply put, being curious is good for us.

If your own curiosity has waned or you are curious but want to be more so, here are some things you can do:

  1. Be curious about your own level of curiosity: are you still interested in learning new things? When was the last time you sought knowledge simply for the pursuit of truth? What happened as a result of this? When were times when you were really curious? Were you curious about particular things or was this more a state of mind?
  2. Spend time with curious people – adults or children: Who do you know who is curious? Do you have children or can spend time with small children who are naturally curious? What is it curious people/ children do? Is this something you could do or would want to do?
  3. Read widely: To quote Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway: “I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.” This is not just about becoming an expert in your areas of interest, but learning more about all sorts and looking to relate two domains that may not seem connected at first. Bill Gates is known every so often to pick up a copy of Time magazine and read every article from beginning to end and not just the articles that interest him the most. “That way you can be certain to learn something you didn’t know previously.”
  4. Ask questions: Asking questions motivates you to go beyond the surface. You learn more because you have a desire to know more. What questions do you ask? Are there questions that engage you on a daily basis? Can you list right now 100 questions in a ‘whatever comes to mind’ fashion? Are there patterns in the topics of the questions? Remind yourself of Einstein: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
  5. Stay open – are you curious or are you really looking for certainty? Are you ready to be amazed? When you are open to the nuances of life, it’s easy to find things that fascinate you and to begin wondering “why?” and “how?”

Curious begets curiosity. The more curious you are, the more possibilities will open up to you. Take this as an invitation to be insatiably curious. Or as Alice in Wonderland put it “curiouser and curiouser”.